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Book Reviews, Criticism, Fiction, Publishing

The Book Reviewer Puts His Integrity to the Test

Once again the names have been excised to protect the innocent.

The dozens of pitches for books to review I receive each week generally fall into two categories: those from independent presses I know and respect, and others from PR firms hired to flog the musings of self-proclaimed experts and celebrities (in other words, 21st century vanity publications).

So last week, when I received one from a publisher I didn’t recognize, I nearly condemned it to my own version of the slush pile (a writer’s revenge for the many, many rejections he has received). But sometimes, I feel guilty about dismissing a pitch with no more than a glance. These folks were new. I’d give them a chance.

The book in question was an anthology of short stories by students in MFA programs—the ten best, I was assured. Visions of scam contests danced in my head. Oh, those poor students, ponying up twenty-five bucks each so that some sleazy publisher could make this month’s rent and put out a few hand-stapled copies of their masterpieces.

The old journalist in me took over, and I contacted the publisher. What do you charge? Where does the money go? What do the students get?

But the publicist, instead of ignoring my queries as so many do, took the time to provide sincere answers: This year we had nearly 1000 submissions. There is no fee to submit. The final judge is a New York Times Bestselling author.

Well, then. Send me a copy. I’m all about recognizing talented students. Crisis solved, students praised, and I’ve done my literary good deed for the week.

Except for one thing: I hated the book.

It’s not that the students can’t write. The stories are fine examples of the type of MFA-taught prose that dominates the chummy little world of literary journals.* And that was the problem for me. Each story selected for this anthology was a dreamy reverie filled with longing, and characters obsessed with family, or self, or floating in water—navel gazing often so overwritten that some sentences were almost painful to read. I felt, when I’d finished, that I’d been swimming in molasses.

Technically, there’s nothing truly wrong with this type of writing. However, from the perspective of the changes and innovations in current fiction and literary criticism, there is everything wrong with it. I won’t get into details here, but this book embodies nearly every fault found in entrenched, establishment fiction that critics like David Shields and Roland Barthes would care to mention.

Much has been written in recent months about how book reviewers can’t be trusted to give an honest opinion; how they sugar coat their critiques to please writer friends who might critique their work, and publishers who may someday offer them a deal. I have thought about these things as I prepare my review, and pitted my desire to write honestly against the guilt of potentially hurting the reputations of writers who are just starting out. I do not know any of them, and do not know how much their MFA programs have contributed to their writing styles. And they are still students—shouldn’t I cut them a large slice of slack? I have no wish to do them harm, but in my opinion, this anthology illustrates many of the weaknesses I believe exist in established fiction, MFA or not, and I have an obligation to inform readers. After all, people will spend money to buy this book.

Most of the blame for these stories must lay with the publisher’s first readers, editors and the judge. Who can say what else was in the 1000 entries they received? Who knows what was passed over in favor of these pieces? Ultimately, it is their literary sensibilities in conflict with mine.

I’m still working on the review, trying to find the balance among all the factors involved. I will post a link when it’s up, for those who are curious about the outcome.

*And I have an MFA, so I ought to know.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


26 thoughts on “The Book Reviewer Puts His Integrity to the Test

  1. Hearing your critique of MFA-type writing is refreshing and instructive. I’m still in the process of deciding on my own terms what’s good, what’s not, and what I should emulate. As a writer, I admit, I tend to be attracted to over-written prose; I tend to write over-written prose. Your commentary on MFA-writing will help me be more critical of this type of writing, whether it is being produced by others or by me.

    Posted by Meg | October 27, 2012, 2:15 PM
    • I was talking about this with the class I teach. I mentioned that when I finish reading a story, the reaction I like to have is “what a great story,” not “what great writing.” That sounds simple, but it is so hard to learn.

      Posted by jpon | October 27, 2012, 7:02 PM
  2. Yes, about just one school of MFA thought, I’ve often gotten the impression that all one has to do is say that one has a degree from the University of Iowa writing program not only to get published, but to get lauded. Face it, every degree program has its C level students and below, at least metaphorically speaking, its duds and also-rans. And this is not to insult a fine MFA program in particular, just to use it as an example. I will await your further article with anticipation!

    Posted by shadowoperator | October 27, 2012, 2:57 PM
    • I get that impression too when I receive a bunch of rejections in a few day period. I’m hoping to have the review done and posted in a few more days.

      Posted by jpon | October 27, 2012, 7:04 PM
      • Hey, Jon, based on your articles, I hope you haven’t misunderstood me: I wasn’t thinking of you as one of the “also-rans” but as one of the “not-yet-discovereds-yet-ultimately-deserveds.”

        Posted by shadowoperator | October 27, 2012, 8:54 PM
  3. I’m recalling the Frank Conroy comment to a young woman from NYC. Frank knew her father, and the father asked him to meet with her because she wanted to pursue an MFA. In the end Frank gave her this basic advice: Go out and get a job and live in the world and don’t ever take a writing class. Then, if you still want to write, start writing.

    I don’t know if MFA writing is so much overwriting (don’t worry, Meg above!) as safe writing. Safe stories told with safe prose. The kind of story looking for approval.

    Posted by Teri | October 27, 2012, 3:37 PM
    • Great point, Teri. And in thinking about the stories in the anthology, one does get the feeling that the writers didn’t have quite enough life experience to really make them come alive. Interesting, though, that many MFA students, especially in low-residency programs (and several stories came from lo-res schools), are older folks.

      Posted by jpon | October 27, 2012, 7:10 PM
  4. I have learned a lot from people with MFAs. I respect them, the effort they’ve put forth and the lessons they’ve learned. But sometimes it seems that they have learned “What is acceptable fiction and how to make what you write look like it.” Almost like a State sponsored art paradigm. “Yes, comrade, it is very beautiful, but it is not what we do.” Those I’ve known who have grown past this, you included, can write stories that people want to read. Others are still stuck, jamming their thoughts and stories into the convoluted frames that are, and sound like, “MFA writing.” I would bet that the 900+ stories that didn’t make the cut were fresher, more original and just plain better reads than the “winners.”

    In fact, in a previous post, I recall one of your writing tips was, If it looks like writing, cut it.

    I’ve said this before and I still think it is true, Just tell me a story.

    As for your review quandry, maybe tell the contributing students that their stories are part of the process, but it would be unfair to judge them yet. Half baked bread is not a loaf.

    Posted by Jon Zech | October 27, 2012, 5:00 PM
    • I’ve made sure to include a comment in the review about how the authors are still students and still learning. I think my real beef is with the editors and judge, and maybe all those MFA instructors, whose choices perpetuate a style of writing that alienates many readers. When it tells an interesting story, it can be spectacular, but the rest of the time it’s not that great.

      And thanks for the compliment. A big part of what’s improved my writing over the years has been encouragement and criticism from people in my writers’ groups, like you.

      Posted by jpon | October 27, 2012, 7:21 PM
      • That, Joe, is because you are the real deal. You’ve got it, even if those folks upstream in the publishing business haven’t seen it yet.
        And your welcome. We help each other. This has been my best year ever for placing work thanks mostly to your tips and help in submission.

        Posted by Jon Zech | October 27, 2012, 10:05 PM
  5. You’ll do the readers a favor by telling them what you don’t like about the book, and why, and you’ll also do the students a favor, in the long run. You write stories that range from realistic/unsentimental to fantastical/ humorous, so you’ve managed to break out of the mold. Maybe you can help them figure out how to do the same.

    Posted by michellemorouse | October 27, 2012, 7:57 PM
    • Some of that mold is still clinging to my shirt. If I told you some of the little obsessions I am still trying to jettison, you might think of me as a writer version of Sheldon on “Big Bang Theory.” Now please excuse me while I check my word count for the 200th time today.

      Posted by jpon | October 28, 2012, 11:29 AM
  6. Such a pickle. I’m looking forward to seeing how you handle this. I’m sure you’ll find a balance, and a way to be encouraging without kissing anyone’s ass.

    Posted by Averil Dean | October 27, 2012, 9:27 PM
    • Most of the review is written, but I keep going to back to make sure I achieve just that balance you mentioned. Thanks.

      Posted by jpon | October 28, 2012, 11:29 AM
  7. You gotta be honest, Joe. Don’t start off their careers with a lie, sugar-coating, or pulled punches. Perhaps, you should even incorporate some of your misgivings and concerns IN the actual review. Afterall, they did play in your honest review of them. As we ping-ponged much earlier in another of your posts, don’t be overly brutal, just be honest. About everything. Even your misgivings. It’s all part of your review of the material. Maybe, they’ll even learn something from it…and that which does not kill us…well, it certianly bruises us, but we just gotta walk it off and learn from it. I trust ya.

    Posted by fpdorchak | October 28, 2012, 3:26 AM
  8. I admire your honesty and your concerns.

    Posted by nadiaibrashi | October 28, 2012, 4:49 AM
    • Thank you, Nadia. One of the reasons I got into creative writing was because I thought I could be more honest. And after careers in journalism (surprise!) and business/politics (no surprise), I am finding it is true.

      Posted by jpon | October 28, 2012, 11:31 AM
  9. wow. this is suspenseful! very curious to read the review! thanks!

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | October 28, 2012, 5:54 AM
  10. And I’ll be interested to see what you think when it’s done.

    Posted by jpon | October 28, 2012, 11:32 AM
  11. I was at the Louisiana Book Festival yesterday and missed your wonderful post. Am I curious? H** yes. Can’t wait to read your review.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | October 28, 2012, 3:32 PM
    • I am taking my time with it, trying to make sure that my points are backed up and that I am being as balanced as possible. Maybe in a few days…

      Posted by jpon | October 29, 2012, 1:14 AM
  12. Joe, I’m just curious—-did you find the stories poorly written or without merit, or were they just the type of stories that you personally do not care to read?

    Posted by miriamagosto | October 28, 2012, 10:49 PM
    • A fair question, Mirie. But as I think I mentioned above, literary stories, when written well, are the best in the lexicon. They can, however, easily become overwritten, as I found many of the ones in the anthology. And certainly there’s some personal judgment involved too. To try to pretend otherwise would be misleading. Another critic might be more enamored of these stories, might appreciate their introspective qualities more than I. There are many schools of critical thought. But all that will be addressed in the review.

      Posted by jpon | October 29, 2012, 1:22 AM

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